Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Haystack' Gives Iranian Opposition Hope for Evading Internet Censorship

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Haystack' Gives Iranian Opposition Hope for Evading Internet Censorship

Article excerpt

Haystack, an encryption software custom made to help the Iranian opposition evade official attempts to censor the Internet, is giving some regime opponents hope of organizing and making progress online.

Opposition activists in Iran are beginning to deploy a new weapon in the cyber war against the regime that they hope will defeat extensive government efforts to block popular mobilization on the Internet inside Iran.

Called "Haystack" - and carrying the motto "Good luck finding that needle" - an encryption software custom-made for Iran in San Francisco is the first anti-censorship technology to be licensed by the US government for export to Iran.

"There has never been a tool built from the ground up specifically to address the way in which the regime does its Internet filtering," says Austin Heap, co-creator of the software. "We really hope that Haystack will be a one-to-one match for how the regime implements censorship."

After disputed presidential elections last June that crowned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a second term, Internet and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook played a crucial role in helping protesters organize weeks of unrest and demonstrations that were often met with violence.

As the opposition Green Movement brought hundreds of thousands of Iranians onto the streets to reverse what they considered a rigged election, multiple crackdowns left scores dead, thousands under arrest, and a trail of charges of abuse and rape in custody.

Iranian security forces launched an aggressive and largely successful campaign to shut down the ability of cyber-savvy Iranians to communicate easily with each other on social networks or post and read opposition news on the web - a method that appeared to initially catch the regime off guard, prompting some to call the most serious internal crisis since 1979 a "Twitter Revolution."

"We need this software," says a young professional in Tehran sympathetic to the opposition. "If it works, it would be a new lifeline. We have nothing now. We hear stories about people being faced with a printout of their SMS [text messages] and e-mails during interrogation; that fear runs in the society."

Cyber police

Iran's law-enforcement chief announced last November the creation of a "cyber police" division to hunt and stop opposition activism online. Also led by elements of the Revolutionary Guard, known as Sepah, Iranian agents are reported to have sent intimidating warnings to individual Iranians from Sweden to Los Angeles who expressed pro-opposition views, and forced some citizens entering Iran to reveal passwords and open their Facebook and other accounts upon arrival at the airport in Tehran.

Attacks that temporarily disabled Twitter and hacked Iranian opposition websites in December yielded a page that declared they were "hacked by the Iranian Cyber Army" and used religious imagery and references frequently employed by the Islamic Republic, though there was no explicit government connection.

"The government is fighting the free flow of information ... so fighting this blockage is the first and most critical step ... required to bring about change," says the professional in Tehran. "[Haystack] would definitely revitalize activism. People have no source of information they can trust anymore. This would again open up sources ... which they could sift through at their own will and get the info they want. It would help rebuild the networks that suffered greatly after the major Sepah crackdowns. …

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